Entertainment Movies Art or exploitation: Are we ready for NITRAM to revisit Port Arthur?

Art or exploitation: Are we ready for NITRAM to revisit Port Arthur?

American actor Caleb Landry Jones is set to play one of the nation's biggest monsters. Photo: Getty / IMDB / TND
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Widespread anger is brewing over the decision to recreate one of the most horrific episodes in Australia’s modern history in a movie.

NITRAM, due to be released on streaming platform Stan next year, will explore the April 1996 events that led to the Port Arthur massacre, and the psychology behind mass murderer Martin Bryant’s decision to shoot dead 35 people, and injure 23 more.

The decision to dramatise Australia”s worst mass murder, and the man who perpetrated it, has been described by critics as liable only to cause hurt, and opening old wounds in the name of voyeuristic entertainment.

The events took place in Tasmania, but NITRAM will be filmed in Geelong, Victoria, a self acknowledgement from the moviemakers that it would be too confronting for the Tasmanian community.

News of NITRAM, which is ‘Martin’ spelled backwards, has been met with mixed feelings, with many arguing it is still too soon to reopen one of the nation’s most painful wounds.

So profoundly was Australia affected by the worst single person-led massacre in in its history that it sparked sweeping gun law reform.

Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein on Tuesday said he felt “highly uncomfortable” about the film, but said it wouldn’t be right to censor the movie altogether.

“It is a difficult circumstance for many in our community,” Mr Gutwein said.

“I would hope the filmmakers are being sensitive in the way they shoot this particular production.”

‘An unwritten protocol’

Dr Robert Clarke, Head of English in the School of Humanities at the University of Tasmania, has written about Bryant and said the film comes as a surprise given the state’s determination to bury the killer’s name.

“There’s a kind of unwritten protocol that you don’t mention Bryant’s name publicly,” Dr Clarke told The New Daily.

“This is a very tight-knit community. This is a story that impacts on people’s lives right now – it’s stories of mothers, of sisters and brothers, of friends and acquaintances.

Art should give us the tools or give us the ability to confront the darkest events in our lives and our communities, but this is why we need good artists – and sensitive artists – and brave people who can take the audience with them.’’

Justin Woolley, a survivor of the massacre, shared his thoughts on Twitter, condemning the film as a “a piece of money-making entertainment”.

“As a survivor of the Port Arthur massacre I would like to state that this can, and let me be clear, f— the f— off,” Mr Woolley tweeted.

Other users disapproved of Bryant being the focus of the film, given the concerted effort to bar him from the notoriety he so desperately craved.

Since his imprisonment, corrections officers have refused him access to newspapers, radios or television content that may mention him or his crimes, and much of the nation seems eager to forget him.

The Port Arthur massacre led to nation-wide gun reform. Photo: Getty

The Stan Original film, which will star Judy Davis (The Dressmaker), Essie Davis (who was born in Tasmania), Anthony LaPaglia (Lantana) and American actor Caleb Landry Jones as Bryant, has kept plot details deliberately vague.

So vague, in fact, that the promotional material distributed by Stan fails to mention Bryant or Port Arthur at all, but instead states it will explore “the events leading up to one of the darkest chapters in Australian history in an attempt to understand why and how this atrocity occurred”.

Director Justin Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant have worked together on Australian dark thrillers True History of the Kelly Gang and Snowtown.

Many critics, including Dr Clarke, believe Kurzel and Grant have their work cut out for them in portraying their protagonist in a way that won’t repulse audiences.

“The risk in trying to understand how Bryant was formed, is that his community – the community of Hobart – may be represented in a way thats less than flattering,” Dr Clarke said.

“If somehow Tasmanian society is represented in this film of somehow being complicit with the creation of Bryant, then that’s a kind of horrific realisation that would cause deep, deep offence.”

Dark state …

NITRAM, due for release in 2021, raises further questions about where Australians draw the line between art, trauma and entertainment – especially when it comes to revisiting events we’d rather forget.

Dr Clarke believes the film’s purpose as an “attempt to understand” the inner workings of a mass murderer may blur the line between morbid curiosity and exploitation.

Well, what is there to understand? And what will be gain from that so-called ‘Attempt to understand?’ Where is the boundary between so-called understanding and entertainment and exploitation?’’ he said.

“Within a moral community, we don’t say the first things that pop into our heads, and we don’t do something just because we can get away with it.”

And while Australia’s smallest state appears to be comfortable leaning into other aspects of its gloomy past, it seems that for now, the Port Arthur massacre is a line none of its residents are willing to cross.

“Tasmania projects this image of itself as being a bit of a dark place, it plays upon the tropes of the gothic and the dark history.

“The history of the frontier violence against its Indigenous people, the violence against convicts, the dark underlying sense of foreboding that’s played upon in films and literature. It’s a culture that seems to be comfortable with using those tropes, and motifs, and things of the gothic.

“But when it comes to this particular story, it comes back to a sense of respect, and deep respect for fellow islanders and for the loss that families and neighbours experienced.

“The voices of the people who live in the community and who are deeply affected by those kinds of events, they need to be listened to and they need to be respected.”